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The Autopilot Theory; Did Autopilot Keep Plane Airborne?; U.S. And Russia Swap Sanctions

Aired March 20, 2014 - 16:30   ET



JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The U.S. Navy has sent a P-8 Poseidon aircraft with a unique capability.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, FORMER AIR FORCE COLONEL: It can go up above 20,000 feet or even depending on what they are doing and then it can control a fleet of drones as they look at very specific areas of the ocean.

JOHNS: It's also a war-fighting plane but in this mission it's the underwater detection capabilities that are especially important, including dropping sonar buoys to try to locate the debris. The New Zealand Air Force is providing a C-130 transport plane, but Leighton says it probably won't be used for transport.

LEIGHTON: What they can do with this aircraft is they can use them to determine the types of things that they might see in the electromagnetic environment. For example, if there was a black box out there.


JOHNS: And with all the search vessels, support is needed. Australia has deployed the "HMS Success," the largest ship ever built in that country for its Navy, officially called an oiler replenishment vehicle capable of getting food and fuel to other ships in the region. Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Joe Johns, thank you.

The search for Flight 370 is not only massive, but of course, very expensive. Some experts estimate it could ultimately end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

When we come back, a simpler theory, could everyone on board Flight 370 have lost consciousness, turning it into a quote, "ghost plane," one that flew for hours on autopilot until it ran out of fuel?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. More now on our "World Lead" on missing Flight 370. Why would it turn off course and then at least according to satellite pings continue on for hours? One theory gaining credence among experts is that there could have been a fire, one that disabled the pilots and knocked out electrical systems, but also allowed the plane to continue flying on autopilot without anyone manning the controls, so the plane just ran out of fuel. Our Suzanne Malveaux is digging in on that possibilities.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): October 25th, 1999, a chartered Lear jet carrying professional golfer, Payne Stewart and five others, plunged nose first into a South Dakota field. It had streaked across the sky for almost four hours flying on its own, the plane had lost cabin pressure and all on board were dead. Jet fighter shadowing plane could do nothing to save it as it eventually run out of fuel. Could Malaysia Flight 370 have also turned into a so-called zombie plane?

CLIVE IRVING, CONTRIBUTOR, "THE DAILY BEAST": I think in the first few minutes of this emergency, the pilots had to change course because they were looking for an emergency airport. They were at some point overtaken by whatever it was, smoke, fire, or some kind of problem. And the plane was then left to fly itself after it had been programmed to go on that course. That's what we call a zombie option.

MALVEAUX: It happened with Helius Flight 522, which flew on autopilot for nearly two hours before crashing outside Athens in 2005. Pilots forgot to turn the pressurization switch from manual to auto. At 34,000, all 121 on board passed out and froze in their seats.

So far, we know the Malaysian flight was flying for at least seven hours based on pings or signals emitted from the plane. Clive Irving believes whatever took out the plane's transponder and communication systems, ACARS was mechanical and could have also damaged the plane's electronic nerve center which, among other things, monitors the cabin's climate.

IRVING: In the case of oxygen shortage where you have a decompression, it happens pretty quickly in a minute or so. In the case of smoke, it can also be very quick. The pilots have a greater oxygen supply than the passengers do so they could have remained active for longer, but all of this could have taken no more than say 10 minutes at most.

MALVEAUX: Skeptics say the zombie scenario is highly unlikely for the Malaysian flight because of the behavior of the plane and crew.

MARK WEISS, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: You're changing heading and professionally and by training you would let somebody know, air traffic control. So an emergency signal would have been broadcast.

IRVING: It may be that they did try to send a signal and for some technical reason the signal was never sent or maybe the signal was sent and no one was listening. This was at like 1:20 in the morning over the Pacific.

MALVEAUX: In the case of Payne Stewart's crash, investigators found no distress call was made either, just a sounding of alarms, including one for a loss of cabin pressure. Suzanne Malveaux, CNN, Washington.


TAPPER: And our thanks to Suzanne Malveaux. I want to bring in Les Abend who is a CNN aviation analyst, who is also 777 captain, and a contributing editor to "Flying" magazine. Les, we're obviously working with hypotheticals here. How viable do you think this autopilot theory is and what would have had to have happened in the cockpit?

LES ABEND, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: I think it's a very viable theory. It's something that I've been touting that seems the most plausible all along from the standpoint of -- the scenario I'm looking is different than Payne Stewart. That was simple hypoxia. The plane lost pressurization and you know, everybody basically went to sleep. It can happen instantly if it's an explosive situation.

It can happen insidiously if it's a slow situation, but my scenario is a smoldering fire that created smoke and once that smoke began the crew donned their oxygen masks. The unfortunate part is you can't totally see a lot of all that smoke from breathing and you're going to get some toxic fumes, depending upon what is burning.

So my scenario was they approached that point where we all know it sounded like a normal situation and made a verbal call. There may have been something on the screen that indicated a slight fault, maybe a shrug of the shoulder and then it started to progress if it was a fire situation. The captain realized it was compelling enough to get the airplane turned and entered a waypoint that was an alternate airport in the flight management computer and kept the autopilot connected because this plane is designed, especially in an emergency situation to reduce workload.

So he would have kept the autopilot on and allow the airplane to make its turn towards the waypoint, which happened to be a diversionary airport and then it got worse and worse and it sounds rather ominous to call it a zombie operation or a ghost ship, but in a way it is very ominous. As it progressed towards the waypoint, the toxic fumes perhaps overcame the crew and perhaps the passengers and at some point, they were no longer able to function.

It may have described -- if the avionics were shutting down slowly, screens may have gone blank. They were trying -- which may explain -- although we can't confirm it, the up and down altitude movements and by that time they were unable to perform their duties and the airplane just sailed and continued right past that waypoint, which was right over the top of the particular airport at 35,000 feet.

Now, we have issues with radar not detecting that. But if it occurred, if it went past the waypoint, it would continue on the same heading that it went over and just stayed on that heading until something altered its course, either a degradation of the avionics or some other particular reason, an external force like weather, the winds aloft, until it ran out of fuel. It may have started a southerly turn, which is why they started to do a search in that direction.

TAPPER: But for this theory to work, he would have programmed this in after the programmed the new direction into the computer after he said, "all right, good night," and that contradicts some information that we have although not all of the information that we have been given proves to be accurate. But I only have a little bit of time left, just very quickly, how long can a plane travel on autopilot, can it really go for six or seven hours?

ABEND: It will go as long as it has fuel. You know, once the engines flame out, the airplane is going to try to maintain the altitude that was commanded by the pilots and when it realizes it can't do that, it will have a parameter and say I have enough and disconnect and it will start a slow descent or rapid descent.

TAPPER: All right, Les Abend, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Coming up on THE LEAD, a family searching for answers, but not wanting to believe the worse. One father tells us about his sleepless nights waiting for his son to return and how he believes everyone on board is still alive.

Plus, President Obama today taking another shot at Russia and it only took minutes for Vladimir Putin to respond, what the Russian president is threatening now.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In other world news, Vladimir Putin's forces tightens their grip on newly annexed Crimea today by storming another Ukrainian military base. Check out this video of Russian forces busting through the gates with an excavator and then shoving around a tank just like they were toeing away a hatchback. The Russians then told the Ukrainian soldiers to throw down their weapons and they raised the Russian flag.

Meanwhile, President Obama is responding to the land grab with a second set of sanctions aimed at pro-Russian officials in Crimea as well as a bank.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: These sanctions would not only have a significant impact on the Russian economy, but could also be disruptive to the global economy. However, Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community.


TAPPER: Russia immediately retaliated with its own sanctions against nine U.S. officials, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senators John McCain, Robert Menendez, Mary Landrieu, and Dan Coats, and White House advisers, Ben Rhodes, Dan Pfeiffer and Caroline Atkinson, all are now banned from traveling to Russia. In fact, it did not seem to bother them much.

Senator McCain tweeted, I guess, this means my spring break in Siberia is off. Let's bring in Nick Paton Walsh live in Crimea. Nick, what's the realty on the ground right now? Will these sanctions do you think change anything on either side?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You're talking about how those Ukrainian military bases are under great pressure. And the tense onslaught of pro-Russian protests are backed up with armed men. We're seeing a pattern across the peninsula that is continuing two ships. It seems like Ukrainian soldiers are really coming out such pressure that they are melting away. But those sanctions all the same, though, unleashed today are remarkably fierce, Jake.

We're talking about the naming of particular people as Putin's cashiers by the U.S. Treasury Department, suggesting intimating wealth that you would not expect of a salary and making it hard for those linked to that wealth to actually function in the global economy by giving them U.S. sanctions. Specific members of the chief of staff of the Kremlin is also targeted as well. Really quite drastic as well.

And then you have the other option too signing an executive order that means they potentially could go after particular parts in the Russian economy, too. The results of this is not going to change things in Crimea, but possibly it might make those around Putin and tough move today from the White House certainly and what we saw back the mirror from Russia really wasn't as tough at all. They seemed like they hadn't actually prepared an equally drastic step -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick, quickly, President Obama announced that a bank would be sanctioned. What is the significance of that?

WALSH: Well, it's significant because the bank is a place where senior Russian officials keep their money. It's a warning shot, too, because the system is massively interlinked globally. They cannot exist in isolation like back in the Soviet times. That could be one hole in Vladimir Putin's thinking and perhaps (inaudible) of that today -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh, stay safe as always. Thank you so much. Wolf Blitzer is here with a preview of "THE SITUATION ROOM." The search is focusing on a deep water search in the Indian Ocean and you're going to be taking a deep look at that?

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": An oceanographer who understands the currents are like, what the level of the sea is over there in the Indian Ocean. So we are going to go in depth on that. You know, in the next hour or so, daylight is going to come over the Indian Ocean, especially the area where they are looking for this debris. It may be wreckage from the plane, might not be. But there are a lot of planes flying over. We're going to check in to see what is going on. I assume in the course of the daylight hours they are going to have a better chance of finding whatever it was. So we'll be all over that.

TAPPER: We'll keep our fingers crossed. Thank you so much, Wolf Blitzer.

When we come back, families now waiting for news from Australia and still abandoning hope that their loved ones are somewhere alive. We'll go live to Malaysia next. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. More now on our "World Lead." Two pieces of what could be floating debris in the Indian Ocean are seen as signs of hope and of horror for the family members of those on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. While some are desperate for any credible information on the state of their loved ones even it means confirmation that the worst has happened. Others are still clinging to the possibility that those on board are still alive.


WEN WANCHENG, FATHER OF MALAYSIA FLIGHT 370 PASSENGER (through translator): I can't sleep each night because all I think about is my son. Up until now, what else can we do? This is about his flight. There is nothing you can do to help. We can only wait for further updates.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you still believe your son is alive?

WANCHENG (through translator): I firmly believe that my son, together with everyone on board, will all survive.


TAPPER: Let's go live now to CNN's Sara Sidner who is Kuala Lumpur where the flight originated. Sara, what has been the reaction to this latest developments in the search from family members?

SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, it really depends on which family member you're talking to, from one to the next, the emotions are very different. Some of them very strong in their reaction saying they just don't believe, as you heard just there, that this is the actual plane. They haven't gotten confirmation. It's very upsetting to them. However, they believe that their loved ones are alive somewhere and that the plane is somewhere intact. And then you have others who are somber, who are saying, we'll accept whatever it is, but we just want to know.

I want you to take a listen to one of the family members waiting here in Malaysia for any word after hearing about these two objects seen by satellite by Australia in the Southern Indian Ocean.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): As a father, I hope that all of the passengers on Flight 370 are safe. My feeling is, personally, I'm grateful to the Australian government for finding it. Both governments, Australia and Malaysia, I thank them. If it is true, it is OK. I will accept it.


SIDNER: So you hear there, he says he will accept it and some of the reaction has been, we just want an answer and the only answer they want is where is missing Flight MH-370. They do not have that answer. The government says that's the only thing they cannot really tell them. We do know that there had been a couple of meetings and last night, there was a private meeting with about 100 family members here with the Malaysian military and Malaysian government.

And the Malaysia Airlines wasn't actually there, but the family members were asking things like, why can't we see these radar pictures from other countries? Why did it take you so long to tell us that this flight was missing? The answer to the first question was security reasons, we can't show you other country's radar images.

The second answer was look, it took a very long time for the France flight to release the information. We wanted to be sure and didn't want to alert people if that was unnecessary. So there are a lot of raw emotions as you've seen. Things have been quite a roller coaster of emotion for these families.

Right now, they are sort of in a somber mood and they are just waiting. They do not want to hear information that lifts them up and gives them hope and then drops them down again -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Sidner in Kuala Lumpur, thank you so much. A very difficult time for those families. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer. He's in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Wolf.